Prophet, Nancy Elizabeth 1890–1960
Nancy Elizabeth Prophet 1890–1960
The first African American to graduate from the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design, Nancy Elizabeth Prophet struggled to achieve success as a sculptor. She spent much of her career in exile and endured periods of extreme poverty before gaining international recognition. Returning to the United States, she taught at Spelman College and continued to sculpt, but again fell into obscurity. Though consistent fame eluded Prophet in her own lifetime, subsequent generations have begun to recognize her importance as a brilliant, if troubled, artist.
Prophet was born on March 19, 1890, in Warwick, Rhode Island, to a family with deep roots in the region. She described her mother, Rosa E. Walker Profitt, as a “mixed Negro.” Her father, William H. Profitt, claimed both African and American Indian ancestry; his mother was a Narragansett-Pequod who had bought William’s father out of slavery and then married him. The sculptor, who identified herself as “mulatto” in a 1910 census, changed her identity to “Indian” in the 1920 census. This ambivalence about her racial heritage plagued Prophet throughout her life. Invited in 1959 to be included in the book American Negro Art, Prophet refused, insisting that “an anthropologist must certainly know that I am not a Negro, and though I am of mixed blood, the two races which I represent are quite different from that which you wish your publication to represent.”
It appears that Prophet did not feel close to her family, who discouraged her artistic ambitions. In fact, she had to hide her drawings and paintings from her parents, who considered such activities a waste of time. Nevertheless, she gained admission to the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), one of the most respected art schools in the country, in 1914, paying her tuition by working as a housekeeper for a private family in Providence. Prophet graduated in 1918 with a degree in painting and freehand drawing. Soon afterward she changed the spelling of her surname, possibly to distance herself from her family.
Despite intense social pressure to marry, produce children, and devote herself to family life, Prophet insisted on pursuing a career as an artist. She did, however, marry in 1915. Her husband, Francis Ford, was ten years her senior and had attended Brown University, though he never graduated. The marriage was troubled from the start by financial difficulties, infidelities by both parties, and periods of prolonged separation. The couple officially separated in 1932.
After graduation, Prophet tried to support herself by making portraits, but was not successful. At the same time, racist attitudes limited her opportunities. When a submission of her work was accepted for a local exhibition, she was told not to attend the opening. Frustrated and angry, she decided to try her luck abroad. She sailed for Paris in 1922, leaving her husband behind.
At a Glance…
Born Nancy Elizabeth Profitt on March 19, 1890, in Warwick, Rhode Island; died in December of 1960; daughter of Rosa E. Walker Profitt and William H. Profitt; married Francis Ford, 1915 (separated, 1932), Education: Rhode Island School of Design, degree in painting and freehand drawing, 1918. Religion: Roman Catholic.
Career: Sculptor,1922-45; Spelman College, Atlanta, GA, professor, 1934-44; domestic worker, 1945-60.
Prophet arrived in Paris with only $380 in her pocket. She quickly rented a studio in the Montparnasse district, but for two months was unable to leave her bed because of emotional exhaustion. When she was finally able to begin sculpting, she thrived on this creative stimulation. But her money ran out completely. She had to move frequently, always seeking cheaper rent, and at one point was so hungry that she stole food from a dog’s dish. Yet Prophet kept working despite these hardships. She studied with the respected sculptor Victor Joseph Sefoggin at L’Ecole Nationale des Beaux Arts, and in 1924 had a wooden bust included in the Salon d’Automne exhibition. She titled one of her first Paris works, a female nude, Poverty.
In 1924 a benefactor gave her money for materials to make her first life-size statue, Volonté. But in 1926, frustrated that the work was not going well, Prophet smashed the statue. Poor and hungry, the sculptor was so desperate that she attempted to raise a few vegetables in a patch of ground near her residence. She became so frail that by 1925 she was admitted to the hospital with malnutrition.
Prophet poured her feelings into her diary, writing of her exhilaration through her work but also chronicling difficulty and near-despair. Her precarious financial situation was a frequent theme. In a passage from 1926, quoted in Notable Black American Women, she wrote: “Days of plenty, and then days of want. Poverty, detestable poverty, how you trail behind me ever screeching out your presence. Think you to ever make me a subject of your kingdom? Never! Though I die of hunger I shall never bend the knee to your majesty for I am not of your race.”
Though she often went without food or sleep, Prophet persevered with her work. In 1927 another American sculptor in Paris, Mabel Gardner, met Prophet and became so concerned about her circumstances that she wrote to American actress Louise Brooks for help. Brooks helped organize financial support for Prophet through the Students Fund of Boston, which sent the destitute artist $30 a month for two years. Prophet’s works from this period were included in the Salon d’Automne in 1925, 1926, and 1927, and were also accepted in exhibitions at RISD and in Boston.
Among the many influential persons who took an interest in Prophet’s life and work was W.E.B. Du Bois, with whom she had developed an intimate relationship before moving to Paris. The couple was often together in France, where Du Bois—who was married—traveled for the third and fourth Pan-African Congresses. When the two were apart, Du Bois wrote letters encouraging Prophet and praising her talent. These were an important source of emotional comfort for the artist during her long periods of obscurity.
In 1929 Prophet returned to the United States for eleven months. She was feted by leading patrons of the arts, and stayed for much of the time with the Du Bois family. She made gallery contacts and sold a major piece, Discontent, to collectors who donated it to the art museum at RISD. Even so, Prophet returned to France with little money. Du Bois had been unable to help her get financial backing for future projects, though he did continue giving her moral support.
Back in Paris, Prophet again found herself battling poverty and obscurity. But by the early 1930s her work was beginning to attract attention. French author Edouard Champion and his wife Julia, admirers of Prophet’s work, began paying the artist’s rent and providing her with meals. This support enabled Prophet to continue working, and she exhibited two sculptures in Paris in 1932. French critics praised her work for its vision, originality, and expressiveness.
In 1932 Prophet again visited the United States to promote her work. She exhibited in Boston and was elected a member of the Art Association of Newport, Rhode Island, where several of her works were included in the organization’s Twenty-First Annual Exhibition. Among these was Prophet’s best-known piece, Congolaise, a cherry wood head of a Masai warrior that critic Michael Duncan, many years later in Art in America, described as a “gorgeously carved” work that “sensitively portrays an elegant African warrior devoid of any air of the ‘primitive.’”
While in the United States, Prophet approached the Harmon Foundation about obtaining a teaching position at a black university. Florence Read, president of Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia, responded positively but Prophet had second thoughts and returned to Paris in 1933. A desperate year followed after Prophet failed to win a Guggenheim Fellowship. To heat her studio and buy food she was forced to borrow money, and she ran afoul of the law over her inability to pay import taxes. Ten thousand francs in debt by 1934 and nearly estranged from her patrons the Champions, she lived on nothing but tea and marmalade while working 18-hour days to renovate her studio.
When a second invitation came that year from Spelman, which Du Bois had pushed the college to arrange, Prophet took the job. She began teaching there in the fall of 1934. With artist Hale Woodruff she expanded the college’s art department, remaining on the faculty until 1944. Prophet was considered a demanding but thorough teacher, but many students found her odd and aloof. She socialized with Du Bois and his colleagues, but eventually found life in Atlanta dull. At the same time, Du Bois became involved with a new woman and Prophet felt abandoned. She looked elsewhere for romance, possibly among her students. She was also frustrated by the demands that teaching made on her time. She longed to work but had no proper studio at Spelman; as a result her own sculpture suffered.
Increasingly withdrawn, Prophet descended into eccentric behaviors that further alienated her from the campus mainstream. Always elegantly and dramatically dressed, she walked around the college speaking in whispers and carrying a live rooster that she brought to class for her students to sketch. She picked mushrooms from the college lawn and cooked them with eggs. On one occasion, disappointed with a student’s clay head of a woman, Prophet smashed the work to pieces. She complained that her makeshift studio on campus was a grave.
Prophet had taken her teaching career seriously, believing it her responsibility as an artist to provide a positive role model for her students and the larger society. But after ten years she felt that she had done enough, and she left Spelman to return to Rhode Island, where she stayed with friends in Providence. From that point on her career declined rapidly. She exhibited a few works at the Providence Public Library in 1945, but never had another exhibition.
Few details about Prophet’s final 20 years are available, but she is known to have encountered financial difficulties yet again and to have been hospitalized for a breakdown. She spent some time caring for her sick father, and likely worked at times as a domestic. She converted to Roman Catholicism in 1951, possibly because she felt that the church continued to appreciate sculpture in an otherwise indifferent age. She died of a heart attack in 1960.
Prophet’s work reflected her belief, stated in an article for the journal Phylon and quoted in Notable Black American Women, that “The principles of the arts which are form, rhythm, harmony; and the abstract qualities, some of which are poise and courage, are factors which no civilized man who aspires to be educated can live successfully without attaining.” Indeed, her own sculptures, which she created from wood, marble, bronze, alabaster, granite, terra-cotta, plaster, and clay, strongly convey these abstract ideals. Critics have noted the influence of Antoine Bourdelle and Auguste Rodin on her work, and have compared her clay and plaster masks to ancient Etruscan statues.
Though Prophet worked with live models when she could afford to pay them, she more often worked from imagination. Critics have considered many of her works, such as Silence and Discontent, to be ethnically ambiguous, suggesting the artist’s mixed feelings about her own background. But in other pieces, such as Bust of Black Man and Congolaise, Prophet dealt straightforwardly with African features. In fact, many of Prophet’s contemporaries considered her work to be about race itself; as a French critic, quoted in Notable Black American Women, put it, “Prophet is a sculptor of race: one feels it in everything, in her work, in the firmness of her will, in her independence.” Art historian James Porter, quoted in the same book, wrote “Without exception her subjects have been Negroes, and usually they reflect the super-personal trait of the individual. The pride of race that this sculptor feels resolves itself into an intimation of noble conflict marking the features of each carved head.”
Fewer than ten of Prophet’s sculptures are accounted for in collections, including those at Rhode Island College, RISD, and the Whitney Museum of American Art. The rest of her works, numbering less than two dozen, have disappeared and are presumed destroyed. As a writer for Notable Black American Women concluded, “Prophet was a talented sculptor with exceptional vision. … Never wholly a part of one community, she will be remembered both as a fiercely independent woman and someone who worked to make a lasting contribution to civilization.”
Contemporary Women Artists, Gale, 1999.
Notable Black American Women, Book 1, Gale, 1992.
Art in America, April 1996, p. 44.
International Review of African American Art, Volume 18, number 3, 2002, pp. 23-31.
“Nancy Elizabeth Prophet, an unknown sculptor!” African American Registry, www.aaregistry.com/african_amererican_history/2009/Nancy_Elizabeth_Prophet_an_unknown_sculptor (August 25, 2003).
—E. M. Shostak